October 19th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Greta Thunberg: she's not doing it all on her own

EDITORIAL Time for Australia to rethink the neo-liberal experiment

RURAL AFFAIRS Queensland Labor punishes farmers to placate UNESCO

CANBERRA OBSERVED Morrison's 'positive' globalism has resonance

NSW ABORTION ACT Amendments annul some of the Act's worst excesses

GENDER POLITICS Doctors call for inquiry into childhood gender dysphoria

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong's 'software' may be key to its survival

GENDER POLITICS Pornography and the transgender agenda

RIGHTS & FREEDOMS Transgenderism poses biggest threat to religious freedom

OPINION When Maggie (Sanger) met Mickie (Mann)

PHILOSOPHY The element of justice in economic practice, Part 2 of two parts

POPULATION Lifestyles and policies ensure population peril ahead

HUMOUR If atheism is the answer, what was the question?

MUSIC Good, better, Bach: The composer who consistently outdid himself

CINEMA Joker: From a heart in darkness

BOOK REVIEW Hope, more than economics, drives Trump voters

BOOK REVIEW A pushback against visceral unreason


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Joker: From a heart in darkness

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, October 19, 2019

What do you get when you cross a gritty arthouse noir with comic book mythology? You get Joker, a “wild card” of a film open to multiple interpretations; a serious movie snuck into a studio-run superhero world.

Joker may not be part of the DCEU – DC’s own shared cinematic universe – but it doesn’t need to be. The character is so well known the association alone is enough to give it extra layers of meaning.

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled man who works as a clown for hire and looks after his ill mother (Frances Conroy), in the breaking-down, disease and crime-ridden Gotham City of 1981.

Arthur wants to be a comedian but is afflicted with a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably, as well as some other mental health problems. He is beaten up by kids, made fun of by the well dressed, and generally treated like trash. He is a man alone in a loathsome world. As events spiral, so does he.

Joker is nominally an origins story, which is funny because even the Joker treats his past as “multiple choice”. While the character has often remarked on how only “one bad day” is all it takes to send someone over the edge, there is a sense with the character that there is more to him than just “one bad day”, a sense this film does nothing to dispel.

From its retro Warner Brothers logo to its “vintage” credits, the film echoes those films of the late 1970s and early ’80s that took alienation and disintegration as their theme. Complicated and controversial films about masculine breakdown, like Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter.

These are themes that recur within arthouse cinema, progressively becoming more and more nihilistic and hopeless, their picture of the world a nasty and horrifying one.

The view from nowhere

However, that is not quite what Joker does. By having a sociopathic serial killer and criminal mastermind as the protagonist, and, crucially, depicting the entire film from his point of view, we see that such nihilism is his understanding of the world.

From early on, we realise that Arthur is an unreliable, if unspeaking, narrator and that what we see may or may not have happened. As a result, we know that whatever “truth” there is to the story has been filtered through the lens of a man who finds gruesome death funny.

Arthur may be mentally ill, but he is not “crazy”, as it is commonly understood. He knows the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, he just doesn’t care.

His attempts to explain himself are not really explanations, or even rationalisations. They are merely the narration of the sequence of events that led to now, a sequence of events where Arthur could have chosen otherwise, but did not. They may be the narrative of his story, but they are not its meaning.

He is a man who has embraced chaos and violence, who wishes to see the world burn, and that’s all there is to it. We might feel sorry about what has happened to Arthur, but we do not and should not feel sorry for what he has become.

Joker is an intense and uncomfortable film precisely because it puts us in this position. We tend to feel sorry for those who are suffering, and there is a tendency to use that suffering as a way of explaining away or excusing whatever else they do. But that is not possible in this case.

Nor is it likely that any “treatment” could “cure” the Joker. At some point he decides to become a nihilistic terrorist and there is nothing that can be done about that except to stop him.

It is not wrong of the film to put us in that position. That is one of the roles of stories – to make us appreciate the experience of others without necessarily agreeing with them. The Joker himself is seemingly incapable of such a thing, and that is part of why he is a villain.

The controversy surrounding the film is driven by those who believe certain people do not deserve to be understood. But, without such understanding, there is no way to counter them, no way to turn them from a joke or a horror into a person.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

All you need to know about
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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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Last Modified:
April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm